What are we watching for in 2021?

By Matthew McMullan
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A few broad policy priorities for the Alliance for American Manufacturing.

Did you hear? There’s an election on Tuesday. Finally! So much noise out there about this election. I say: Let’s just get all the votes in already, start counting, and get this over with.

Unless Kanye comes on real strong at the last minute, we’re either gonna have Joe Biden in the White House or another term of Donald Trump. And since we know our candidates, here are a handful of big, broad policy priorities that the Alliance for American Manufacturing will be watching for in the early days of 2021:

Infrastructure Investment

We compared the candidates’ plans for a federal infrastructure bill a few weeks ago. President Trump has proposed such programs more than once over his first term, but none went anywhere. Biden, meanwhile, has made infrastructure spending a major part of his economic policy platform – he’d spend approximately $2 trillion on it over four years – and proposes a $400 billion Buy America fund to run in tandem with it.

So where does that leave us? Trump has talked a big game but ultimately has not made infrastructure a priority, and Biden says he will. It’s good that both profess to like the idea of an infrastructure program, as the country remains in dire need of one and the American economy needs the stimulus that this spending would provide. Now someone needs to follow through and pass an infrastructure bill. Read more here.

Clean Energy Investment

We’re going to run out of fossil fuels sooner or later, and burning it nonstop for decades is altering the planet’s climate. We need to make serious investments in clean and renewable energy so we can both keep the lights on long-term and mitigate the effects of climate change.

The Trump campaign has tried to tie Biden to the Green New Deal, but it’s not a correct comparison: The Green New Deal is a broad, politically progressive agenda that includes stuff about health care and housing, while the Biden policy is much more specific and is basically his infrastructure proposal. His infrastructure proposal could fit the Green New Deal framework.  

Biden has tied clean energy heavily into that proposal. One very specific part of it, which he’s mentioned in debates and speeches: Fit the national highway system out with electric vehicle charging stations. Trump also says he supports electric vehicle production, but his administration has tried to kill tax credits that incentivize EV purchases and he’s criticized California for its plans to require 100% zero-emissions vehicle sales in the state by 2035.

Trump’s policies on the solar industry have been interesting to watch. The Trump White House raised tariffs on solar panel imports, which slowed their proliferation across the country but also triggered an increase in domestic solar panel production. So that’s kinda good? And, for what its worth, the Trump administration just okayed what will be the biggest solar farm project in the nation to date.

But we need a lot more of this stuff and fast if we’re to rapidly expand a substantial, competitive clean energy industry on its own feet in the United States.  

By the way: Most of those solar panel imports come from China, which isn’t exactly the greenest manufacturer on the planet. We wrote about that industry here a few years back:

The proliferation of cheap Chinese solar panels depends on more than just government support. The low price relies on China’s notoriously poor environmental protections, and the dangerous working conditions in its mines and factories. While China’s environment may benefit in the long-term from a strong renewable energy industry, “for the time being the industry continues to tread the traditional path of ‘pollute first, clean up afterwards.’ China’s shining solar industry, while enabling blue skies elsewhere, is leaving behind a scarred landscape at home.”

And speaking of China …

Trade with China

How will each candidate approach trade policy with China? When we’re talking about trade policy in the 2020 presidential election, we’re really talking about the U.S.-China trade relationship, an elephant in the room worth trillions of dollars each year.

Briefly: Trump raised tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of Chinese goods in 2018, which invited retaliatory tariffs on American exports, bilateral negotiations where the sides barely budged, and a “Phase One” truce that left most of the tariffs in place and committed China to major purchases of agricultural products. So far, China hasn’t fulfilled its Phase One commitments. And Phase One, importantly, hasn’t opened up a lot of markets in China for American manufacturers, nor has it led to a reduction in the goods trade deficit that the US has run with China for 20 years.

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However, the trade deal is referred to as “Phase One” because there’s supposed to be a “Phase Two.” There are lots of issues with China’s trade policy that the administration outlined in a huge report, so if Trump is re-elected, his trade representative is supposed to continue negotiating.

Biden’s China trade policy immediately calls for multilateralism, which is another way of saying we should negotiate with China with and on behalf of other countries. That’s a significant shift in approach from the Trump doctrine. That said, the Biden campaign has been careful to say he wouldn’t remove Trump’s China tariffs on day one. The Phase One deal will be the starting point for Biden, too.

Trade with Everybody Else

Let’s see: The Trump administration renegotiated NAFTA, which counts as a promise kept by the president. The deal, signed in January, increased both labor standards and rules of origin, which will make American manufacturing more competitive. It’s a good example of the strange fault lines in American politics that Trump’s election in 2016 has revealed: It succeeded on Capitol Hill on the strength of congressional Democrats’ votes. The Republicans didn’t like it.

There have been small deals with Japan and South Korea, both of whom are members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP, you’ll recall, is the much larger agreement negotiated by the Obama administration with a dozen Pacific-rim countries that Trump backed away from upon assuming office. The deal went ahead without American participation.

The U.S. has also beefed with the European Union over tariffs on Boeing airplanes, and the Trump administration is negotiating a bilateral trade agreement with the United Kingdom – but it appears a potential hard border in Northern Ireland could derail the talks. At any rate, Biden has made clear any deal that affects the current peace in Ireland is a non-starter.    

Worker Training

Trump and Biden have different policies, of course, affecting the American workforce. Biden says he would have the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issue specific coronavirus rules for workers operating in a close physical space with others; Trump hasn’t and doesn’t plan to. Biden has said he’d expand the landmark California labor law that would make it harder for companies to classify their employees as contractors and thus avoid extend benefits to them; Trump sides with the companies. Biden wants to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour; Trump thinks it should stay at $7.25, where it has been since 2009.

But what we also really need out of the next president is a significant investment in workforce training programs that sets workers up with current and marketable skills so they can get good jobs and make good money. We’re fond of this framework from the National Skills Coalition.